07 December 2009 by Published in: Civil War books and authors 8 comments

The other day, I got a very nice e-mail from Ulric Dahlgren, IV. Ric, as he’s known, is the harbormaster in Annapolis, MD. He is also the great-great grandson of Ully Dahlgren’s younger full brother, Charles Bunker Dahlgren (after Ully was killed, his father, Admiral John A. Dahlgren, re-married and had a second family with his second wife, Madeleine Vinton Dahlgren, which is why I made the distinction).

Ric had some very nice things to say about my biography of Ulric Dahlgren. He said, “I want to express my approval and gratitude on behalf of my family for the way you handled the entire short career of Ulric.” Thanks, Ric. I really appreciate that.

After reading my book, he also came up with a new angle on the Kilpatrick-Dahlgren Raid that I frankly had never even considered, and it’s something that’s well worth considering. In discussing the so-called “Dahlgren Papers”–the documents found on Ully Dahlgren’s body when he was killed in the ambush in King and Queen County–Ric wrote, “What if the slave WAS setting him up for an ambush and this was known to southern troops, and at the last Ulric also knew it? Would this have made a better opportunity for forgery? What if he wrote those papers solely as a personal act of defiance in case he was killed, to instill fear in the South?”

Ric refers to a slave/guide named Martin Robinson, whom Ulric Dahlgren had hanged the night before he and his command tried to enter the city of Richmond, largely because Robinson did not give Ulric good directions to an unattended ford where his men could cross the James River. Dahlgren mercilessly hanged the man by the side of the road.

Ric’s e-mail to me was an absolute bolt out of the blue. I have to admit that the possibility that the Dahlgren Papers were the tool of an intentional plan of spreading disinformation–what the Russians call a “maskirovka”–never, ever occurred to me. It’s certainly within the realm of possibility, as almost anything is when considering the Dahlgren Papers, and it’s worthy of further consideration. It would certainly require a brilliant strategic mind, the time and opportunity to write the documents, and a solid understanding of the Confederate high command structure and how it might respond to such a threat. It’s a fascinating possibility.

I’m going to have to gnaw on this some more, and I likewise want to invite you all to pitch in and tell me what you think about this. Remember that Ulric Dahlgren was three weeks shy of 22 when these events occurred, that he had no formal military training whatsoever, and that he had just returned to duty after nearly dying as a consequence of his Gettysburg Campaign wound. I welcome your thoughts.

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  1. Tue 08th Dec 2009 at 10:23 am

    Eric, good to see you back blogging.

    My first question in this topic is – did Dahlgren have the time, opportunity to craft the papers? Of for that matter the time to craft the premise behind the papers?

    Beyond that , yes, a perceived threat to the CS government might shake those in Richmond. But there were places in Georgia which may have provided the rope to hang him!

    If the aim was to spread fear, why not just have a set of papers outlining a plan to free all slaves in Richmond, then arm them to cut a great swath through the South? (Been know to have that effect)

    Or maybe have a set of papers indicating Lincoln would like to meet with RE Lee to discuss a separate peace with Virginia?

  2. Ian Duncanson
    Tue 08th Dec 2009 at 5:31 pm

    Sounds just like the kind of practical joke a 21 year old would think up.

  3. Ken Noe
    Tue 08th Dec 2009 at 6:20 pm

    If he had time to sit down and write those papers before he was captured and killed, didn’t he have time to avoid the expected “ambush” in the first place? And why come up with something that was sure to embarrass Lincoln internationally and possibly lead to the black flag?

  4. Rick Allen
    Tue 08th Dec 2009 at 6:31 pm

    Seems pat.


  5. Chris Evans
    Wed 09th Dec 2009 at 1:36 am

    I tend to agree with Ken Noe’s line of thinking on this subject. It wouldn’t seem like a very smart thing for the guide to do.

  6. Valerie Protopapas
    Wed 09th Dec 2009 at 9:37 pm

    Well, there was a history program on TV which studied the papers (cannot remember the name of that program for the life of me!) which utilized objective document experts who testified that they were in Dahlgren’s hand despite the seeming misspelling of the man’s last name. A computer generated study clearly showed that ink had bled through from the other side of the paper causing the appearance of the wrongly spelled last name. That fact, plus many other points of reference caused the experts to declare that the papers were in Dahlgren’s hand and were therefore NOT forgeries. This makes much more sense than believing that the Confederates were stupid enough to misspell the name of the man involved given that ADMIRAL Dahlgren was sufficiently well known to assure a correct spelling of the name!

    Furthermore, it would have taken some considerable time to manufacture any forgeries. I believe that these papers were forthcoming very soon after the incident in which Dahlgren was killed. That didn’t leave a whole lot of time to produce papers that would stand up under scrutiny.

    In the alternative, for sufficient time to exist to create reasonable forgeries would have meant that the Confederates were aware of the whole operation and who was involved and that the papers were “on sight” at the time Dahlgren ran into the group of Confederates who killed him. That makes even less sense than the belief that reasonably credible forgeries were created virtually within hours of the incident. Remember, not only would credible forgeries have had to be created, but the plan itself including the names of those involved would have had to be “dreamed up” within a remarkably short period of time.

    So, if we’re going to believe that the papers allegedly found on Dahlgren were, in fact, forgeries, then we have to believe that someone in Richmond was able to take advantage of an unplanned encounter, find out the names of those involved, think of up a sufficiently reasonable plan that a man like Robert E. Lee would not immediately recognize as a tissue of lies, create forged papers outlining that plan and then announce it to the world not months or weeks after the fact, but days or hours. If the Confederate government had had that kind of mental acuity available in Richmond, the results of the war might have been very different indeed.

    I believe that there is sufficient proof to show that the Union government FROM THE VERY TOP ON DOWN, had decided upon a different kind of warfare – and that kind of warfare did not shrink from the type of plan that Ulrich Dahlgren and Judson Kilpatrick set forth to accomplish.

    Frankly, I really have trouble understanding the need to “prove” that the papers were a forgery – especially so long after the fact – and that this was not a premeditated, well planned and supported strategic undertaking by the Union. Indeed, I doubt very much that had the raid been successful, today’s historians would have had much of a problem accepting its “legitimacy” and perhaps even praising its efficacy – at least given everything else that happened with which they apparently find no problem.

  7. Ralph Hitchens
    Thu 10th Dec 2009 at 10:03 am

    What Ken & Valerie said. Seems like a real stretch to imagine a last-minute, just-in-case forgery.

  8. Thu 10th Dec 2009 at 8:16 pm

    I am inclined to agree with all of you, and I am inclined to dismiss Ric’s theory. I believe that my take on these events as spelled out in the conclusion to my book is the closest I think we will come to knowing the truth.

    Thanks for the input, guys.


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